Border battles threaten the new Sudans

  • 15 November 2011
  • From the section Africa
An SPLM-North fighter points toward an Antonov plane flying overhead moments before bombing the area in Kurmuk region of Sudan's Blue Nile state on 6 October 2011

The steady, low drone of the Antonov over their temporary shelters sent the refugees running - and announced a dangerous new phase in Sudan-South Sudan relations.

Despite Khartoum's denials, Juba is convinced Thursday's bombing of the refugee camp in Yida, in South Sudan's Unity State, was the work of the Sudanese military.

It is reported that several people were killed in another aerial bombardment the next day in Upper Nile, also in South Sudan.

The war of words has come a step closer to a genuine conflict, in the tense lands either side of the still not completely defined new international frontier.

In the last few days South Sudan's President Salva Kiir has accused Sudan of wanting to drag his country back into a "meaningless war".

The new government in Juba believes that Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir is supporting southern rebels behind periodic attacks near oilfields in Unity State and Upper Nile.

"Omar al-Bashir believes only in war. He has problems in the north so he is trying to shift this to South Sudan to cover his weakness in his own country," Maj Gen Mangar Buong of the South Sudan army told the BBC.

Sudan denies this and has repeated its accusation that Juba is supporting rebels north of the border in the states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile.

It is very hard to prove any of the competing claims, but the impact of the fighting on people is clear to see.

Stephen Gatwech is only five or six years old, with infectious laughter and a big smile. His loves his new toy, a trumpet made from shiny paper.

He is also missing most of his left leg - the result of a landmine accident. The mine, laid by rebels in Unity State fighting the southern government, reduced his foot to slivers of useless skin and killed his grandmother and others.

The mines and the occasional rebel attack are making life in Unity State difficult - as is Sudan's decision not to let many goods cross the border into South Sudan.

"I cannot say the economic situation in Unity State is good," says James, who owns a pharmacy in Bentiu, the state capital. "It's because the road from Sudan has been closed. The prices are really going up."

Stephen Gatwech who lost his leg after stepping on a mine in Unity State
Stephen Gatwech lost his leg after stepping on a mine in Unity State

Others complain about their fear of travelling because of the landmines.

The South Sudan Liberation Army (SSLA) rebels in Unity say they are fighting against corruption, underdevelopment and mismanagement of the oil revenues, and liken South Sudan's leaders to the mafia and former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.

And it is surely no coincidence the rebels are operating where South Sudan's oil reserves are - the southern army spokesman has even called this a "war about oil".

In Upper Nile, southern rebels have attacked the army and now the charity Oxfam has pulled its staff out of the state because it said they were too near aerial bombardments over the border and a reported troop build-up.

'Rest and recuperate'

There are probably similar stories to be told over the border in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, but Sudan is not keen to let journalists visit these sensitive areas.

Map showing disputed border area of Abyei

The situation up and down the border seems to be getting worse, just four months after South Sudan became independent.

Meanwhile, the status of the disputed territory of Abyei remains unresolved, though it has been in the hands of the Sudanese Armed Forces since May.

But if Sudan did bomb several places in South Sudan it is now operating militarily across an international border, an extremely serious act.

The same judgment would apply if South Sudan was found to be supporting SPLM-North rebels in Blue Nile and South Kordofan.

People fleeing fighting in those states have crossed the border to the south, and it appears the areas where they have gathered were bombed.

Khartoum believes it is the northern rebels who cross into South Sudan to rest and recuperate, before rejoining the fray.

That seems to be the logic behind the Sudan foreign ministry spokesman's declaration that there are no refugee camps in South Sudan.

The camp at Yida might contain SPLM-North fighters, though they deny this, but I also saw many women and children and old men, who clearly were not combat personnel.

WFP aircraft being loaded with food in South Sudan
The UN helicopter is loaded with food for the Yida refugee camp, where Sudan believes rebels hide out

Whatever the truth of the matter, there is no doubt the incident has further undermined Sudan and South Sudan's already fragile relationship.

The UN and the US have both already condemned Sudan, and the flurry of denials from Sudanese officials suggest they must have at least some concerns about the damage the accusations are doing to their country's standing.

Discussions in the UN Security Council also highlight the ongoing conflict either side of the border.

President Kiir has made it clear he will not let South Sudan return to war. But the increased tension cannot help the ongoing negotiations on post-secession matters, and the situation could potentially degenerate much further still.

The failure to resolve a number of issues before South Sudan seceded, including the border, security and oil, is being paid for now; and above all the lack of a meaningful solution for the areas of Abyei, South Kordofan and Blue Nile.

These were, sadly, all too predictable sources of conflict. Now the virus seems to be spreading.

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